The Heiresses

August 23, 2018 § Leave a comment

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I’ve just seen my first Paraguayan film, set in Asunción, written and directed by newcomer Marcelo Martinessi and starring Ana Brun, who had never acted in a film before. She won the Silver Bear for best actress at this year’s Berlin Festival. Besides having a male director, The Heiresses has a mostly male crew, but an entirely female cast, with the exception of a few walk-on parts for men (just one line of dialogue, from a late-night street vendor, from whom Brun’s character, Chela, buys a hotdog).
Chela lives in the large, grandly appointed house where she was born, inherited from her wealthy parents, and for some three decades shared with her partner Chiquita, from the same privileged class. In the world they inhabit women don’t work for a living and they regard servants as a necessity. But with unearned income apparently drying up, Chiquita has got them into a bank debt legally classed as fraud. As she serves a prison sentence, funds are found by selling off domestic valuables: the paintings, crystal glassware, solid silver cutlery and fine items of furniture that were handed down to Chela.
In prison, with its inescapable communality, rubbing shoulders with seasoned thieves and one-time husband murderers, the outgoing and bossy Chiquita thrives. Chela, anxious and depressive, shrinks from life and is fearful without Chiquita’s organising presence to manage its practicalities. While she listens behind a door, the maid Pati, although illiterate, handles viewings for potential buyers, and likewise manages everything else in the household, being already instructed by Chiquita to buy all groceries on tick and only pay the butcher. Chela continues to be seen in or behind doorways, on shadowy thresholds that emphasise both her loneliness and the hesitations that stand in her way.
These early scenes make for an underlying comedy that quietly asserts itself as things progress. This is a subtle, intimate film, observing the texture of these lives often indirectly, through sidelong looks and small gestures, through sound at the edges or in the background as it adds emotional weight, through music that is sometimes wistful or seemingly incongruous for characters already past middle age. And through Ana Brun’s exceptional performance, where a range of feeling is conveyed with minute shifts of expression and posture. All of which is reminiscent of the Argentinian director Lucrecia Martel and her capacity to make us, the audience, attend to nuance.
Accustomed to passivity and Chiquita always at the wheel of their car, Chela balks when a neighbour asks for a lift to her card game with other old ladies. She reconsiders and becomes a regular driver for the circle of gossipy widows, who are happy to pay her rather than risk a taxi in this dangerous city of economic extremes. And so we see her begin to swap timidity for confidence, to look and move and smile with tentative ease.
At the card games and at a 50th birthday party the couple earlier attend we see only women, most of them over 60 and some much older. One exception is the flirtatious and sensual Angy, only in her 40s, for whom Chela becomes a regular chauffeur. She confides about her various male lovers and a friendship is kindled between the two women, with signs that it might go even further. Thanks to Angy’s support and the kindness of Pati, in her role as maid the most perceptive of all the characters, Chela grows in strength.
One day the doorbell rings and Chela’s face brightens in expectation of Angy. The camera follows her into the next room. Just when we want to see that face, the camera withholds it. Hanging back, it confines the shot to Chela’s profile as she is greeted by Chiquita, newly released. But the profile is enough to show her disappointment.
At the film’s start we are struck by Chiquita’s vibrant and cheerful personality. In the end she strikes us as overbearing, one half of a couple that stifles the other. Without her presence, Chela has discovered her own vitality and has acquired a taste for independence.
This film takes us inside the small, fossilised world of the Paraguayan bourgeoisie. But its themes are wider, its feminism illuminating. The Heiresses is the remarkable product of a country where inequalities remain stark and sexual freedoms unconquered after decades of dictatorship followed by coup after coup in which right-wing governments prevail, a country whose film industry has only got underway in the last five years. The Heiresses could not have been made without its production support from Uruguay and Brazil, France, Germany and Norway. It’s funny and touching, a cheering achievement whose success is amply deserved.
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